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Imperial Life in the Emerald City

Rajiv Chandrasekaran (2006)


His agitation grew as he spoke. Then he fell silent, staring at the pool and puffing away. After a moment, he turned to me, his face grave, and said, I'm a neoconservative who's been mugged by reality." (6)

None of the succulent tomatoes or the crisp cucumbers grown in Iraq made it into the salad bar. U.S. government regulations dictated that everything, even the water in which hot dogs were boiled, be shipped in from approved suppliers in other nations. Milk and bread were trucked in from Kuwait, as were tinned peas and carrots. The breakfast cereal was flown in from the United States—made-in-the-USA Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes at the breakfast table helped boost morale. (9)

The kitchen, which had once prepared gourmet meals for Saddam, had been converted into an institutional food-processing center, with a giant deep fryer and bathtub-size mixing bowls. Halliburton had hired dozens of Pakistanis and Indians to cook and serve and clean, but no Iraqis. Nobody ever explained why, but everyone knew. They could poison the food.
The Pakistanis and the Indians wore white button-down shirts with black vests, black bow ties, and white paper hats. The Kuwaiti subcontractor who kept their passports and exacted a meaty profit margin off each worker also dinned into them American lingo. When I asked one of the Indians for French fries, he snapped: "We have no French fries here, sir. Only freedom fries." (10-11)

Whatever could be outsourced was. The job of setting up town and city councils was performed by a North Carolina firm for $236 million. The job of guarding the viceroy was assigned to private guards, each of whom made more than $1,000 a day. For running the palace—cooking the food, changing the light bulbs, doing the laundry, watering the plants—Halliburton had been handed hundreds of millions of dollars. (14)

Open spaces became trailer parks with grandiose names. CPA staffers unable to snag a room at the al-Rasheed lived in Poolside Estates. Cole and his fellow Halliburton employees were in Camp Hope. The Brits dubbed their accommodations Ocean Cliffs. At first, the Americans felt sorry for the Brits, whose trailers were in a covered parking garage, which seemed dark and miserable. But when the insurgents began firing mortars into the Green Zone, everyone wished they were in Ocean Cliffs. The envy increased when Americans discovered that the Brits didn't have the same leaky trailers with plastic furniture supplied by Halliburton; theirs had been outfitted by lkea. (15-16)

My favorite was the JJ Store for Arab Photos, the Iraqi version of those Wild West photo booths at Disneyland: you could get a picture of yourself in Arab robes and a headdress. (19)

One morning, as a throng of Shiite pilgrims jostled their way inside the Imam Kadhim shrine in northern Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt. A second bomber waited around the corner and set off his belt when survivors ran away from the first blast. Then a third bomber blew himself up. And a fourth. (22)

Those Iraqis on the inside knew they had great jobs—they earned as much as ten times more than the average Iraqi civil servant—and they weren't about to risk their paycheck by complaining about the occupation or informing the Americans that their plans were foolhardy. Instead, they heaped praise on their masters, telling them everything they wanted to hear and minimizing any bad news.
A few thousand other Iraqis lived inside the Green Zone, in bungalows along tree-lined streets between the palace and the al-Rasheed. They were a mix of Sunnis and Shiites who had bad jobs in the palace before the war but were too low in the ranks of the Baath Party to flee or wind up in American custody. They traveled outside the walls all the time, to work, to shop, to see relatives. Some of them even spoke English, and had Americans in the palace offered to listen to them, they would have heard an unvarnished description of life in the real Baghdad. But except for the odd, adventurous CPA staffer, most Americans didn't bother seeking out their Iraqi neighbors. (27)

Someone mentioned the State Company for Batteries, whose factory and adjoining offices on a quiet side street in northern Baghdad had not been ransacked. When Americans inquired why the factory had been spared, ministry officials laughed and said that the batteries were so poorly made, even the looters didn't want them. (52)

Clothes handed over to the military's laundry service, run by Kellogg, Brown & Root, a Halliburton subsidiary, were returned after two weeks, if at all. Instead of finding a laundry in Baghdad or hiring Iraqis to wash items by hand, KBR sent the garments to Kuwait. (56)

The atmosphere was thick with sexual tension. At the bar, there were usually ten men to every woman. With tours of duty that sometimes stretched to six months without a home leave, some with wedding rings began to refer to themselves as "operationally single." (63)

The men joked about it too. They claimed to know someone who knew someone who was on a British Royal Air Force flight to Kuwait where the pilot announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, we're exiting Iraqi airspace. Ladies, you are no longer beautiful." (64)

"I'm not here for the Iraqis," one staffer said. "I'm here for George Bush."
When Gordon Robison, a staffer in the Strategic Communications office, opened a care package from his mother to find a book by Paul Krugman, a liberal New York Times columnist, people around him stared. "It was like I had just unwrapped a radioactive brick," he recalled. (92)

O'Beirne's staff asked questions in job interviews that could have gotten an employer in the private sector hauled into court. (The Pentagon was exempted from most employment regulations because they hired people—using an obscure provision in federal law—as temporary political appointees.) (103)

A Coalition Provisional Authority press briefing.
DATE: February 25, 2004.
SETTING: Conference Room Three, Baghdad Convention Center.
BRIEFERS: CPA spokesman Daniel Senor and Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt.
QUESTION (in Arabic from an Iraqi journalist): General Kimmitt, the sound of American helicopters, which fly so low to the ground, is terrifying young children, especially at night. Why do you insist on flying so low and scaring the Iraqi people?
GENERAL KIMMITT: What we would tell the children of Iraq is that the noise they hear is the sound of freedom. Those helicopters are in the air to provide safety, provide security. Certainly our helicopter pilots do not fly at an altitude intentionally to distract the children of Iraq. They're there for their safety. They're there for their protection. And just as my wife, who is a schoolteacher, tells the children they're sitting in the classroom that, when they hear the artillery rounds go off at Fort Bragg, she says, "Children, that's the sound of freedom." They seem to be quite pleased with that explanation. We would recommend that you tell the same thing to the children of Iraq, that that helicopter noise you hear above you ensures that they don't have to worry for the future. (144)

The pair named their firm Custer Battles LLC, which drew snickers in Iraq. Custer told people he was a distant relation of George Custer, the general who was famously trounced at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. When Americans noted that Custer the general was defeated by the locals, Custer the contractor didn't have a good comeback. (156)

Agresto knew next to nothing about Iraq's educational system. Even after he was selected, the former professor didn't read a single book about Iraq. "I wanted to come here with as open a mind as I could have," he said. ''I'd much rather learn firsthand than have it filtered to me by an author."
His training from the Defense Department was no more extensive. "They taught me how to put on a gas mask, how to set the helmet snug, how to button up your flak jacket," he said. "That's it."
None of that fazed him. The televised images of Iraqis cheering as the statue of Saddam was toppled in Firdaus Square seemed like the Middle Eastern version of the Berlin Wall coming down. "Once you see that, you can't help but say, Okay. This is going to work," Agresta said. (189)

The result was a Governing Council that had strict quotas: thirteen Shiite Arabs, five Sunni Arabs, five Sunni Kurds, one Christian, and one Turkmen. To some Iraqis, who placed national identity over religious or ethnic affiliation, it looked like the Americans were adopting a version of the troubled political system in Lebanon that divided government posts among several religious groups. "We never saw each other as Sunnis or Shiites first. We were Iraqis first," said Saad Jawad, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "But the Americans changed all that. They made a point of categorizing people as Sunni or Shiite or Kurd." (222)

The corkboard in the bar at Ocean Cliffs, the British housing compound, was the Green Zone's version of the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner. There was a photograph of President Bush dressed as Marlon Brando in The Wild One, in a leather jacket and touring cap, sitting atop a motorcycle. "Be afraid," the caption read, "because paranoia is patriotic."
Another parodied a poster for the movie Jackass. It depicted the Bush administration's foreign policy team in a shopping cart, flying off a cliff.
Other postings involved less graphic design acumen. A handwritten sign admonished YEE-HAW IS NOT A FOREIGN POLICY. (235)

Before the war, the hospital had been a private clinic for Saddam's relatives and Baath Party leaders. Once the Americans arrived, it remained a private facility, limited to soldiers, CPA personnel, and private contractors. The only Iraqis admitted were those accidentally shot by American troops. (237)

"Ali, your government keeps complaining that it doesn't have enough money," I said. "Why don't they tax the cigarettes like they do in America?"
"In our country," Ali said, "it would not be wise to tax a tranquilizer" (242)

The other humans did notice the cats—and kittens—scampering in the garden and the trailer parks. Staffers named them and played with them during breaks. They even stole cartons of milk and cheese from the dining hall for their newfound companions.
When Halliburton managers discovered the pets in their midst, they asked the marines guarding the palace to shoot the cats on sight lest they spread illnesses.
Dehgan deemed it bad science. "The danger of disease was probably infinitesimally small," he said. "This wasn't done with any thought to the psychological value that these cats provided."
When the execution orders were announced, CPA staffers saved their favorites, hiding them in trailers, in bathrooms, in the pool house. David Gompert, Bremer's security adviser, kept a cat he named Mickey in his palace office. Mickey was watched over by Gompert's security detail, but he still managed to chew through several sensitive documents.
The Halliburton cat killers finally got wise to the asylum strategy and deployed Filipino contract workers on a hunt-and-kill mission. They opened every trailer while the occupants were at work and rounded up every cat they found.
One night in June, a woman stood wailing outside her trailer. She was due to ship out in two days and had taken her cat to a veterinarian for the necessary shots for entrance to America. When she returned to her room, she found a note from the death squad informing her that her cat had been seized because it was against the rules to house animals in the trailers.
"They killed my pet," she sobbed. "I hate them." (292-3)

The mission that balmy Sunday morning was, quite literally, crap. Swope's platoon would be escorting three septic tank trucks through Sadr City as they vacuumed pools of sewage bubbling from corroded underground pipes. The truck drivers were hired and paid by Baghdad's city council, but if U.S. soldiers did not accompany them, they would demand bribes from residents before turning on the suction pumps. (294)

Agresto, the CPA's senior adviser for higher education, didn't have a budget. In September 2003, before the Supplemental, America's paltry reconstruction funds were controlled by the U.S. Agency for International Development. So he walked cross the palace to the USAID office to ask for help. He'd heard that they had $25 million set aside for Iraqi universities.
A USAID program officer told Agresta that the money was already earmarked for grants to American universities that wanted to establish partnerships with Iraqi institutions. Agresto was dumbstruck. American universities? What about habilitating looted buildings? Restocking libraries? Re-equiping science laboratories? Perhaps the American universities will help with that, the program officer said. It's up to each school to decide how it wants to use the money.
Well, Agresta replied, can I at least see the proposals from the American universities? Sorry, the program officer said. I'm not authorized to show them to you.
When Agresta threatened to file a Freedom of Information Act request with USAID, bureaucrats in Washington relented. He read the documents in near disbelief.
The University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture had been selected to partner with the University of Mosul's College of Agriculture to provide advice on "academic programs and extension training." Not only was Mosul's near-alpine climate far from tropical, but the college had been burned to the ground by looters. What it needed was a new building. (317-18)

Another woman, who worked in Paul Wolfowitz's office at the Pentagon, proclaimed to me that she and her colleagues had become impervious to criticism of the administration's handling of the war. In her office, she said, the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid" was regarded as a badge of loyalty. (332)

Bremer and his wife entered. Everyone wanted to shake his hand, to say hello. He waded through the crowd in his old combat boots. There was a relaxed ease in his bearing that I had rarely seen in Iraq. A few times, he threw his head back and laughed. He had recently finished writing My Year in Iraq, a book about his experience as viceroy. Now his only obligations were a series of speaking engagements, and his only worry was the progress of kitchen renovations at his country house in Vermont, which included the installation of a custom-made, $28,000 La Cornue stove. (332-3)

Defense Department auditors had begun to question the CPA's spending spree with Iraqi oil funds in the waning days of the occupation, noting that as much as $8.8 billion could not be properly accounted for, including $2-4 billion in one-hundred-dollar bills that was flown to Baghdad from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York six days before the handover of sovereignty. (334)

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